Writers’ & Artists’: How to Get Published Conference 2012 [pt. 2]

A summary of the 2012 Writers’ & Artists’  ‘How to Get Published’ conference, 7th July 2012. A full day is hard to summarise – there were talks, graphs, powerpoint presentations, panels, book signings, coffee and walnut cake… 

Part 2

Bloomsbury’s best selling Christmas book of 2011 was Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s vegetarian cookbook titled River Cottage Veg Every Day which sold over 10000 copies. Impressive. Kerry Wilkinson – self-published author of the hugely popular Jessica Daniel police crime series, sold over 300000 copies of his books, including his debut, Locked In, over the final quarter of 2011, without the benefit or need for a large publicity department, print reviews, agent, or connections across the publishing world.

How did he do it? Does this mean writers don’t need an agent or a publisher?

Kerry took us through the process of uploading his book to Amazon and shared details of how he maximised sales so that readers read his books and come back for more.

When he’d completed his first novel, Locked In, he ‘couldn’t be bothered’ going through the hoops of the traditional route to publication. He self-edited it. He researched how books are sold and worked out where and when to sell it to maximise sales. Knowing that over the Christmas period new Kindle owners would be looking for books, he chose this time to upload and to promote his books. More than that – he sought out readers and reading groups. He joined reader forums to talk about books – to talk about his books. He knows how to cross-promote and he promoted his upcoming book along with his current title.

Here are Kerry’s Tips for selling books:

Write what you want to write. Kerry writes for himself but he writes what people like to read. He tapped into a ready market with the crime genre.

Don’t bother about other writers – connecting with your reader is the single most important thing that a writer can do.

Pay attention to forward advertising – Kerry promoted his next book in each new book – this is something he thinks traditional publishers should do.

Contrary to ‘received opinion’ on ‘platform building’ and online presence, Kerry doesn’t spend a lot of his time blogging and talking about writing. He does interact with readers on reader forums.

Start your ebook immediately with page one – don’t copy traditionally published books which aren’t designed for ebook reading.  A more exciting opening will create a more exciting taster or ‘sample’ that readers can click through on Amazon before buying and lead to more sales.

Get the pricing right. Kerry’s first book sold for £1. His third book sells for £3.

Make a simple cover for your book. Photoshop is easy and makes an effective cover. Don’t overload it with a fussy image or too many words.

Create a simple website that’s uncluttered. Include key information in bold – when the next book is coming out, what it’s about, how much it costs and where to buy it. Include a link to Amazon.

Kerry’s mantra is – Think like a reader.

Kerry told us he writes every day. Interestingly, he still has a day job and more interestingly, he’s signed a publishing contract with a mainstream publisher: see his very frank Q&A with Sam Missingham in FutureBook [29/12/11] where he describes how he was contacted by agents after he’d sold thousands of books and where he also explains why he’s gone down the traditional route.

The final session of the day was an agent panel. Rachel Calder was joined by Patrick Walsh of Conville and Walsh and Lucy Luck of Lucy Luck Associates.

All agreed it was difficult to get published with an agent, that it was difficult to land an agent but that it was equally difficult to be published without an agent.

Confused?

Here’s the statistics they shared:

Sayle Literary Agency receives around 60-80 unsolicited submissions a week, from these they will sign up 3 or 4 new writers per year

Lucy Luck receives around 50 unsolicited submissions a week, from these she might sign up ten writers, and from these, 3 or 4 a year will sign a publishing contract

Conville and Walsh receive around 4000 unsolicited manuscripts a year, around 100 are ‘treated’ or developed, and from these, around 7 are sold on to publishers

They talked about how the acquisition process has changed in recent years so that the editorial decisions now include the whole company, including, marketing, publicity and sales departments. Publishers pay less than previous years and the editorial balance has moved to agents who now spend a lot of time developing manuscripts before taking them to market.

Often, a conversation around the edges of a book result in exciting things. All of the agents agreed they will work to develop a manuscript with a writer whose voice they consider has potential. Lucy Luck gave the example of her client, Catherine  O’Flynn, with whom she worked to bring out her prize-winning first book, What Was Lost. A willingness to take criticism is a key attribute in an unpublished writer.

– Patrick Walsh is convinced that ‘cream always rises to the top’.

A lively closing Q&A ensued where delegates queried the different agents on the best way of maximising success with their submissions. While they repeated most of what Cressida Downing said in the morning session on how to submit ‘properly’ by following the guidelines on their websites, there were also smaller points worth highlighting:

Don’t call or write in advance of sending a manuscript to query whether they’ll accept it – just submit

Research agents carefully so that your manuscript ‘fits’ their current titles and author list

Your covering letter should be short and to the point and personal to the agent

Never use the term ‘peruse’ and never call your book a ‘fiction novel’

A ‘platform’ or blog can help an agent to decide but on its own it won’t make an agent sign up and is more useful for non-fiction writers and projects

FSG is ‘fantastic for the whole publishing industry’ and shows the disconnect between what people want to read and what agents & publishers want to publish. It’s a ‘win-win’ situation and while writers and literary editors are ‘snotty’  it doesn’t diminish the benefit it has brought to publishing. It’s a ‘black swan’ event.

The main thing all of the agents look for in a manuscript is a strong writing voice.

So there you have it – write what you want to read, take time over your submission package,  or self-publish. It’s up to you.

I approached the ‘How to Get Published’ conference with scepticism – was it a way of making money from writers who haven’t yet landed a publishing contract or agent? Will I learn anything useful I can pass on to writers and that I can use when submitting my own writing? Is there any point in listening to a different writer’s journey to publication which will probably not replicate mine? On balance, yes, it was really useful and worth the round-trip from Scotland to London. There are countless self-help books on creative writing and how to submit your manuscript – you’ve read them all and so have I, but nothing quite matches hearing it first hand combined with the opportunity of speaking directly to experts and those who work in the industry – especially when that advice is realistic and backed by evidence.

With thanks to Bloomsbury for conference hosting and organising.

– link back to Pt.1

BookRambler’s Q&A with Children’s Author, Lari Don

Lari Don is an award-winning children’s author of ten books and a further four books out this year.

Maze Running and other Magical Missions,  published by Floris Books this month, is the last in the popular ‘First Aid for Fairies’ series for older children.

Lari also writes picture books for younger readers.

 

Lari graciously agreed to a Q&A by email before the launch of her latest title – Maze Running …, which I devoured in one sitting. It’s pacy and exciting – a really good traditional story for children and a fitting climax to the series:

 One of Helen’s friends is dying, stabbed in the heart by the Master, and this life-threatening injury needs a magical remedy. Helen and her fabled-beast friends unite, with the help of the dragons, to find a magical token with the power to cure. But they only have until tomorrow night…

[from the publisher’s tempting blurb]

Lari regularly updates her blog with information for writers looking for tips and inspiration and with reflective posts that examine the writing life. And in her email responses she gives thoughtful answers that let us into some of the decisions and strategies she adopts when writing for children.

Q1. In Maze Running, as in all your books, you create a real page turner. From the first page the pace flies along and doesn’t flag. New writers often struggle with their openings –either they begin too dramatically and then fizzle out or build to the drama but fizzle out quickly. You keep the pace moving forwards. How do you do work it out? Do you write individual scenes and connect them together or work out the cliff-hangers at the end of each chapter and write up to it?

LDI’m glad you thought the story kept on moving! I like to keep the pace up, so I try to put any description or necessary information amongst the action, rather than stopping the action. And I don’t plan the plot carefully beforehand; I just let the story carry me along. I tend to write chronologically, rather than writing individual scenes then moving them around, and I use cliff-hangers as signposts to aim for, but really, I just sprint ahead with the characters and record what happens!  However I do edit very carefully afterwards, to cut out all the bits I needed to work out the story, but which the reader doesn’t want to slog through.  I hope that’s why it’s pacy!

Q2. You don’t shy away from writing about dark things that happen. Do you worry that this might be too frightening for your readers? How do you know when you’ve got it right?

LDI don’t ever know if I’ve got it right.

I did once read a draft chapter of Rocking Horse War to my own kids, and as I got to the dark distressing bit, I thought “Oh dear, this might make them upset.” Then I thought, “If this makes them cry, then I’ve written it right.” It made them cry. And I was very pleased. Which probably makes me a conscientious writer, and a terrible mother!

When I write picture books for wee ones, they are not dark or scary. There will be a problem, but it will be solved in daylight, with adults in the background.

But Rocking Horse War and the First Aid for Fairies books are for older kids. I wouldn’t be able to sustain their interest over 20plus chapters if there wasn’t some danger, and as a writer I wouldn’t want to live in that world for a year if there weren’t some difficult decisions and dark characters to challenge me. It’s what makes the story worth writing, and reading. But these are books for primary kids, mainly, and I do always want to end on a positive note. So there will be a bit of worry and fear (and tears, sorry…) as well as a few painful injuries on the way, but I can usually promise, if not a totally happy ending, then at least a hopeful one.

And maybe I can tell if I get it right. If kids want to read the next one…

Q3: Do you have an ideal reader you write for?

 LD: Me, when I was 10. I write for the girl who loved horses and climbing trees and getting wet in rivers, but who also loved reading Diana Wynne Jones and CS Lewis books. I really do wish a centaur had turned up on my doorstep!

Q4: The names of your fantastical and fabled creatures seem to fit them so well: Yann, Lavender, Sapphire, Lee, Helen, Catesby, Rona… How do you know when you’ve got the right name? Do you ever change a character’s name at the draft stage?

LDGetting the right name is really hard, and involves scribbling lots of lists and testing lots of names. Helen was Anne or Anna for a wee while, then Irene, but she didn’t convince me at all until she became Helen. That fitted her immediately. There is a meaning or a reason behind every name (Rona for example is from the Gaelic for seal; Sapphire is a blue dragon who likes jewellery, hence a gem name) but I very rarely explain the name in the book, it’s mostly just for my own satisfaction! Yann however turned up with his own name. I didn’t choose it!  I don’t much like arguing with him…

And yes, I have changed names late on, if they haven’t fitted, or if I have realised they are too close to other potentially confusing names. That can be hard, as it takes a while to get to know the character again.

Q5: I love the way you thread well-known traditional folktales into your stories. The Scottish folk-tale of Thomas the Rhymer is an important element in Maze Running, how did this come about? Have you always known this tale or did you research ballads?

LD: I am inspired by a lot of myths and legends. The main injury in Maze Running (but I won’t say what that injury is!) was partly inspired by a Viking god myth for example, and the Borders tale of Tam Linn was a huge influence on the Carterhaugh section of First Aid for Fairies, and on the whole plot of Wolf Notes. I have known of Thomas Rhymer, and the story of his reappearance at the Eildons, for a long long time. My family come from the Borders, and I went to school there for a while! And I once told Thomas Rhymer in a forest, as part of an art exhibition with students putting their visual interpretations of the old legends in the trees, as storytellers told the tales below. It was a lovely night, apart from the midgies…

I love the idea of introducing kids to the old stories in my new books.

Q6: Setting is very important in all of your books. In Maze Running it’s the Eildon Hills. Why here for the last in the series?

LD: The settings are vital. I find the landscape and legends of Scotland very inspiring. Maze Running is set partly in the Borders (Traquair and the Eildons) but also much further north at Cromarty, and further west at Kilmartin. I wanted to go back to the Borders because that’s Helen’s home, so I wanted to tie the story up there.

And the Eildons are very magical hills. I walked up them one day last autumn to research the quest at the Lucken Howe, with a notebook and pen in my hand, as always. I could actually HEAR Helen and Lee arguing in my head as I walked from Melrose up to the reservoir. So that scene almost wrote itself, in a way which would never have happened if I’d been sitting at home looking at pictures of the Eildons online. Walking is a great way of hearing the right words!

 

Q7: Your books appeal to both male and female readers and you’ve got really strong female characters – I’m thinking of Helen and her vet mother. How important is it to you that you give out a positive message in your books? Or do you just concentrate on writing a good story with universal appeal? Why is “The Master” – the baddie – a male character?

LDGood question. I’m a girl, and I have two daughters, so I tend to think of girl characters first.  But I hope I write strong boy characters too, and I certainly know that boys and girls enjoy my books.

When I was growing up I used to get slightly annoyed at all the excellent books with main characters who were boys who had sidekicks who were girls. And that’s still a tendency in kids’ books. So far I’ve tended to do it the other way round! Helen is the main character, and Yann and Lee are often her sidekicks. And in Rocking Horse War, my other novel, Pearl is the main character, but is accompanied by (and either helped or hindered by) the mysterious Thomas.

However as far as my baddies go I am an equal opportunities employer… The Faery Queen in Wolf Notes is a girl! And I would suggest (without spoiling the plot) that there are several other characters in Maze Running who are definitely female and definitely not goodies!

Q8: If you were magically transformed into a fabled beast, what would it be?

LDOh. I don’t know. I’d like to be a centaur because I like to run. But perhaps I’d like to be fully human some of the time. So maybe a selkie? But they are usually a bit wet, and I’m not as much of a fan of swimming as I am of running. So perhaps a wolfgirl like Sylvie, who can be human or wolf, and can chase down deer. But I’m a vegetarian, so I’m not sure that would work. I think I like being that most magical creation – a writer, because then I can be anything I like, every time I write !

 

Q9: Maze Running is the last in the series of ‘First Aid for Fairies’ – sadly. Did you always plan to write four or did they evolve out of each other? Did the characters demand more stories?

LDInitially I only planned to write one. There would have been no point in writing more if no-one had published it!  But when I was editing First Aid for Fairies for publication, I came up with the idea for Wolf Notes, and when I was editing Wolf Notes, I came up with the idea for Maze Running (which right from the first moment was clearly going to be the last book), and when I got feedback from readers that they missed Rona in Wolf Notes, that cemented the idea for Storm Singing. So each new book came out of the previous books. But four is enough, for now, even though I had lots more ideas when I was editing the last two! I have to stop now, partly because Helen and her friends are getting older – they’ll be wanting Young Adult plot lines next, and I’m not ready to write those! – and partly because I want to explore other ideas, characters and worlds.

Q10: If you were paper, what would you fold yourself into? Ian Rankin said ‘a book’ in his Q&A, – so what else?

LD: A boat. There is a boat in Viking mythology which can be folded up and put in a pocket, and I’ve always thought that would be very handy.  Especially round Scotland’s wild and wonderful coastline.

Thanks Lari, for taking the time to answer my questions – 

…And finally….  what’s next on the writing front? More fabulous creatures or something different altogether?

LD: Not another fabled beast book yet, if at all. I have a few other totally different ideas racing around in my head, but I’m not sure which one I will go for first. It’s a difficult decision, choosing which characters and story you’ll spend the next few months or years with. I think I will have to choose the questions which I’m most keen to answer, the story which just won’t leave me alone!  

Q & A with Ian Rankin

Q & A with prize-winning Scottish author Ian Rankin


Writing professionally since the 1980s, there’s not much we don’t already know about Ian Rankin or his writing. His best-selling Inspector Rebus novels are published in 22 different languages across the globe and more recently he’s started writing about a new kind of crime-fighter in DI Malcolm Fox of The Complaints (Internal Affairs).

You can find all you need to know about Ian on his Official website: biography, the books that inspired him, his writing life and love of music – you can even follow a map to ramble around Edinburgh in Rebus’s footsteps.

There’s a nice Q&A on Waterstone’s author page too:  where we find out that Ian’s favourite word is ‘lacrosse’…

… so, it’s almost impossible to find out something we don’t already know.

Or is it?

I caught up with Ian between events on the book-launch tour for The Impossible Dead.

J:-      The Impossible Dead is set in contemporary Scotland with much of the plot looking back to the social and political scene of the 1980s, the same time that you published your first novel, The Flood. If you could travel back in time, what advice would you give to your younger self?

IR:-    Don’t drink so much.  A lot of blank spaces back then where memories should be.  Maybe that’s why I couldn’t remember all the domestic Scottish terrorism that was going on.  A lot of the period 1980-85 seems to have passed me by.

 

J:-       Who would you invite to your Come Dine with Me Dinner and what would you serve them?

IR :-   I watch that show.  I’m not a great cook but I do have a few ‘bankers’.  Maybe a rich beef and wine stew.  Or a chilli con carne.  Plenty of good white and red wine.  To start: smoked salmon.  Cheese and oatcakes for afters.  Around the table would be arranged Robert Louis Stevenson (so I can ask him about the first draft of Jekyll and Hyde – the one he’s supposed to have thrown on the fire), Frank Zappa (he might even play a few licks – I never got to see him in concert), and Billie Holiday.       

 

J:-        Your house is on fire! Your family and record collection are safe but you only have time to save one book – what is it?

 IR:-    My 1st edition hardback of Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. My wife bought it for me when I was doing my PhD on Spark.  Many years later, I met the lady herself and she signed it for me.  (At the risk of getting a hand singed, I might also grab my signed and dedicated copy of Keith Richards’ Life in passing…)

 

J:-      The Impossible Dead is set outside of Edinburgh and nicely opens up the possibility of taking the Malcolm Fox series across Scotland. You’ve visited bookshops and book festivals in all the major Scottish towns and I wonder, which Scottish town have you always wanted to visit but haven’t yet found the time?

IR:-    I’ve visited most of them, at one time or another.  But I’ve never been to the Outer Hebrides… so maybe Stornoway.  Also, I visited Falkland once (when I was in primary school) and I keep meaning to go back.  Johnny Cash claimed he had roots there, you know.

 

J:-        I love the new covers! The whole back catalogue has been rebranded. How much input did you have on the final result?

IR:-     I once tried designing my own book jacket  –  it was for the original hardback of Strip Jack.  Orion went along with it and it was terrible (basically a Lion Rampant flying from the Houses of Parliament).  I’m useless at that kind of thing, so I usually go along with the opinion of people who are paid to come up with the right visual treatment.  It is frustrating that if you get a really great look, it only stands out from the crowd for a year or two, because people start to copy aspects of it.  Orion showed me various possible jacket looks, and we did discuss it a little.  I’m happy with the outcome.


J:-       If you were paper what would you fold yourself into?

IR:-    I’d fold the paper in half, then in half again, and cut the edges to make an eight-page blank book, ready to be filled with cartoons, drawings, and lines of text.

 

The Impossible Dead (Orion) is published on 13th October